Does it really matter where a sports team plays? Don’t the New York Giants labor in New Jersey? Don’t the Los Angeles Angels suit up in Anaheim?
Yes. But sometimes, sometimes, it truly makes a difference. The Detroit Pistons have been out of Detroit for nearly 40 years. For a decade, they played in a cavernous football stadium in Pontiac. Then they built a lovely but lonely home on empty acreage in Auburn Hills.
But basketball is a city game at its core, and there was always a tug to get the Pistons to dribble back. On Tuesday, that tug became a handshake, that handshake became a deal, and that deal will return NBA basketball to downtown, just blocks from the baseball stadium, blocks from the football stadium and in the same building as the hockey team.
“When the Pistons tip off here in October, for the first time in 43 years, all four Detroit sports teams will be playing in the city of Detroit,” a beaming Mayor Mike Duggan told the media Tuesday. “We’re the only city now with all four teams in the downtown area.”
Hmm. How strange would that sentence have sounded 10 years ago?
This was a big deal. You could feel it looking at the podium, where for the first time in recent memory, the owners of two of our major sports franchises sat together for a joint business announcement. Here was Pistons owner Tom Gores, the Flint-raised California billionaire investor who has been itching to make a bigger community connection since purchasing the team five years ago.
Next to him was Chris Ilitch, the CEO of Ilitch Holdings and operational heir to the empire started by his parents, Mike and Marian Ilitch, who own the Red Wings and have been all about downtown forever.
The fortunes of those two men are beyond countable. But on Tuesday, they had their hands cupped around the same oval prize, a stadium that will sit on Woodward Avenue and will feature the Pistons on one night, the Red Wings on another, concerts and other events that will provide “230 nights a year of entertainment,” according to Tom Wilson, the president of Olympia Entertainment and a man who has worked for both franchises.
Think about that: 230 nights of something going on, big things going on, in the same building, in a planned development called the District that is rapidly, on paper, becoming the place to be.
“I was thinking this morning how surreal it is that I’m here,” Gores told the media, reflecting on his modest roots in Flint.
Surreal for him? How about for Detroiters who, just a few years ago, were watching our bankrupt city being scraped like gum off the heels of a dismissive America?
Now, suddenly, we’re doubling up. Tuesday was like a pizza/pizza delivery, like getting roast beef on top of the corned beef, like getting the new parka plus the new skis.
We keep hearing how crowded Detroit real estate is growing. How’s this for crowded? The hockey and basketball teams have to play in the same arena!
‘A community asset’
And yet, perhaps you ask again, what difference does it make where a sports team operates? Don’t the Arizona Cardinals play a long way from downtown Phoenix? Don’t the New England Patriots play nearly an hour outside of Boston — and that’s withouttraffic?
Yes. But sometimes, sometimes, that drive matters. The Pistons in Auburn Hills were a lifetime away for many Detroiters. In a city in which a huge percentage of residents lack transportation, getting to see Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Grant Hill, Chauncey Billups or Andre Drummond has been, let’s be honest, almost physically impossible. There are no trains. No buses. The parking alone would make it financially difficult.
So basketball, the city game, rarely was viewed by people who lived in the city. And a certain energy was lost. Sure, the crowds at the Palace were plenty loud during the championship years, but they were noticeably quiet and sparse the rest of the time.
“There’s great potential to introduce the Pistons to people who perhaps were geographically challenged to get to the Palace,” Ilitch said.
He’s right. No knock on Auburn Hills, a fine community, but going to a Pistons game meant a pregame ritual of eating before you got in the car, and a postgame ritual of waiting in a crowded parking lot and driving back home before you stopped for a drink or late-night snack.
Consider what this new arrangement might portend. If you work in the city, you could meet friends for dinner in one of a gaggle of new restaurants, see the Pistons or Red Wings play, go for postgame food and drink, and never have to walk more than a few blocks.
That’s something we don’t have now.
That’s a big enticement to people thinking about moving or working downtown.
And that’s why this deal is more than just its vast surface value; it’s an increase in perception, another bowling pin knocked down by the increasingly heavy ball of renewed Detroit optimism.
“It’s almost beyond amazing that a deal of this magnitude can come together so quickly,” Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, said during the news conference.
For that you can thank the Ilitches, who have proven to be more visionary the deeper they invest in the city, and Gores, who knows smart business when he sees it and is nimble and rich enough to dive in quickly, and a fellow named Arn Tellem, the vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment. Gores hired Tellem, a former big-time agent, last summer. He gave him an agenda to explore ways of making the Detroit Pistons more, well, Detroit.
Tellem was the first guy I called Tuesday, because I knew he’d have been integral to the process. Modest in this new role and uninterested in the spotlight, he deferred credit to his boss, Gores, and said that the biggest leap in the unusually fast negotiations came when Gores personally met Ilitch and his parents.
“That was an important meeting,” Tellem recalled. “A lot of it was developing a relationship and trust. Knowing we could work together and communicate.”
Once that was established, Tellem worked tirelessly as a go-between, cranking through the details. He was credited by pretty much everyone on the podium Tuesday for his work. “I think everyone knew from the beginning that it made sense if we could come together,” he said.
But let’s face it. That would not have happened if Gores lacked a real desire to mesh with the city that fronts his team’s uniforms.
“Ultimately, this is a community asset,” Gores said Tuesday. “When you take a team, you steward it. You’re not the owner for a day, you steward it.”
This is a far cry from the Gores who was portrayed, upon purchase of the team in 2011, as a slick L.A. opportunist who was going to flip the team and its building as soon as both appreciated enough.
Maybe he was never that person. Maybe people change. Lord knows, things are changing awfully fast around this city.
A lot faster after Tuesday.
‘It was time’
So again, one last time, does it really make a difference where a sports team plays? Don’t the celebrated Dallas Cowboys play 18 miles outside of that city? Don’t the San Francisco 49ers play 39 miles from San Francisco, which is greater than the entire width of Rhode Island?
Yes, but sometimes. Sometimes, it is not about geography, it’s about a statement. On this, Duggan may have summed it up best. A lifelong Detroiter, the mayor recalled for the media riding a bus as a teenager to see the Lions play in Pontiac their first season after leaving Tiger Stadium in the city.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “How can they call them the ‘Detroit Lions’ when they play in Pontiac?”
Duggan reminded the crowd that the previous Red Wings owners had threatened to move to the suburbs; that the Tigers had once, under Tom Monaghan, flirted with a move to Dearborn. And, of course, Bill Davidson took the Pistons from Cobo Arena downtown to the Oakland County suburbs in the late 1970s. He often defended the move by saying that when he studied Detroit, he saw the writing on the wall.
Well, today that writing reads somewhat differently. It’s more of an invitation. And it’s becoming, dare we say it, a cry of urgency that says “You better get in fast or risk being shut out.” Cranes are rolling. Rents are rising. The Woodward corridor has stormed back like an empty shelf being restocked for the holidays.
And suddenly, the new Little Caesars Arena could be the busiest venue in town.
Are there still important questions? Sure. Parking, for one. Big issue. So is access and egress, especially with a lane of Woodward gone for the QLINE and the possibility of a Tigers, Red Wings and Lions game all falling on the same day. We will see traffic jams heretofore unseen in the city. That won’t be fun.
There’s also the question of the entertainment merger of Gores and Ilitch operations, which creates a near-total monopoly on venues both in and out of the city. And there’s the $34.5 million the city is putting up to help pay for changes in the arena.
No, the Ilitches and Gores didn’t do this solely for civic pride, it’s going to make them all a lot of money if it works. And meanwhile, it does little for the continuing issue of Detroit’s outer neighborhoods, which see no ripple effect from all this downtown economic pileup.
But Tuesday wasn’t about saving the city. It was about one more piece of saving it.
And it was about this: a team coming home.
“It was time,” Gores said. And if that sounds odd from a guy who recently purchased a $100-million house in California, well, it’s still the proper sentiment. It’s better if a Detroit team plays in Detroit. It’s amazing that all four of them will soon be doing so. And it’s mind-boggling to think that, on a day when all three sports venues are in action, you can walk from one to the other to the other without breaking a sweat.
“I can’t believe we’re here!” Duggan said Tuesday, with a childlike enthusiasm at what has suddenly, very quickly, come together. And why not? He, and the city he leads, just got a very happy Thanksgiving.